Preface to Journeys With Open Eyes

Seeking empathy with strangers

My latest book, Journeys With Open Eyes, goes live in the next few weeks with a launch to crowdfund preorder sales in pursuit of a conventional publishing deal.

Here is the Preface to give you a flavour of the title and content.


What on earth am I doing here and why?

I have lived and worked in all 6 continents, planning for new towns, industry and urban infrastructure through 5 decades and meeting many wonderful and a few less appealing people on the way. My work has been as much social as technical, requiring at least a quest for, if not a guarantee to find, empathy with the people and places encountered.

As a Geographer and Town Planner, I suppose I see towns and cities a bit differently to most people. I am immediately drawn to how they work and sometimes why they don’t. There is always an explanation for either state, but it is sometimes quite hard to find, because things grow up in a particular way over centuries, then they suddenly change for one particular reason such as a new transport system or direction of new growth which becomes the new determinant of overall function whether good or bad. The saddest factors when a place is declining in fortunes are invariably economic, when a town’s reason for being there dies, such as changes in agricultural practice, the end of coal mining or shipbuilding, and these days climate change and susceptibility to drought or floods.

It is always difficult to tell the inhabitants of a place why things may not be working or how they could be improved. They have lived with the problems far longer and have strong opinions based on lots of day to day evidence. Who is this newcomer and what are these theories of function and form he brings to tell us any better than we already know?

Harder still is the blank canvas, where a new community is to be built, or rather the superimposition of new land uses on old ones, because in our overcrowded world, there is never really a blank canvas. But lots of people treat new communities as if they were blank canvases, as if the climate, physical features, relative positions of other settlements, places of employment and most influential of all, value systems with which the new inhabitants will inhabit were not critical to success or failure.

The abiding appeal of geography and planning is that every urban situation is completely unique and there is never a justification for ‘one size fits all’; we should only do ‘ bespoke’. Trouble is, and what gets planners a bad name sometimes, is that we do often apply a ‘one size fits all’ mentality even when not intending to, because bespoke is too complex or long winded a solution and its implementation too expensive in a cash and time-strapped world.

But this book is not only about the theories of planning, and what makes places work or not. There is a bit of that in most chapters but it is more about what makes people work, together, apart or not at all, and only from my totally subjective viewpoint. I focus on individual relations in whatever part of the world I was working, though I sometimes stray into generalisations about societies as a whole just to be controversial and stimulate a response which might range from quiet agreement to its usually more vocal opposite. The result is an eclectic mix of journeys with open eyes that have taught me a lot about the world almost all of it positive and therefore uplifting. See how you feel when you have read through to the end.

In the course of my journeys, I have been in all sorts of situations both good and bad, from inspiring to downright dangerous and I have learned something from them all. Many times I have asked myself ‘How on earth did you get yourself into this predicament? More to the point, how are you going to get out of it?‘

The predicaments vary enormously, but a lack of familiarity with an environment is always a risk. You stand out like a sore thumb and your persona probably lights up in the crowd to the beady eye of those intent on mischief. To pick one situation at random, that is how my nightmare in Delhi started after losing my passport and mobile phone to a professional pick-pocket routine. I would have admired the choreographed professionalism of it all, if it had not caused me such bureaucratic grief.

Getting off the train from Chandigarh, the eager porters were grabbing bags from the luggage racks to lift them down to the platform. Chasing anxiously after them, my attention was focused away from my little backpack where resided most of my precious possessions suitably zipped up as I thought. All except my wallet that is — that was down my underpants and hopefully thus a no go area. The bags were safely returned to us on the platform, so after the compulsory tipping, we relaxed into a taxi for the journey to our hotel. Only on check in at hotel reception did the critical disappearances from my backpack reveal themselves — passport and mobile phone gone!. Absence of identity documentation, together with their all important entry and exit visas, without which you are almost literally non existent, together with the absence of a means to communicate about it by phone, are not a good combination in India.

With a tightly defined itinerary abandoned, the next day was re-scheduled for queuing at the British High Commission for a temporary (cheap cream cardboard) passport, then the Indian Interior Immigration department for new Entry and Exit visas. While the former offered limited tea and sympathy and a wait of merely an hour, the latter did not. Indian Immigration departments are not for the fainthearted or those of an impatient disposition. I had 8 long hours in which to savour aspects of the many human frailties on show.

I may not have liked it much at the time, but the experience taught me so much about human nature, now stored in my memory for future use. There was after all little else to do during the interminable and otherwise mindless waiting times, other than to watch, listen and learn from my fellow sufferers and those in charge, as we all endured the process of identity re-instatement. Of course, the objective was keeping India safe from illicit entry and exit and the terrorism that doubtless lurked beneath its surface, all lost if bureaucratic vigilance was not being observed. Vigilance was minutely observed as only the Indian Civil Service knows how.

Name anywhere I have lived or worked throughout the world and there has been time enough for a bizarre situation — life threatening sometimes, mildly dangerous more often, but almost always revelatory. Let me list a few.

- Left on a sand spit in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the tide coming in, while our boatman disappeared over the horizon ‘in search of a better island for our picnic!’.

- In the middle of the 1970’s Rhodesian Bush War, left at passport control on the South Africa border by my gun-running mercenary driver, hoping he would remember to come back and pick me up.

- Lost on my first cross-country solo flight over the English Midlands with a line squall obliterating all visibility and no radio contact to seek help or direction.

- 2 months before the revolution against the Shah of Iran, questioned in Isfahan Airport by the Iranian secret police about having someone else’s airline ticket.

- Failing to prevent my Algerian driver from illegally picking up a wounded gazelle he had hit in the Sahara, despite draconian regulations concerning wild life ‘conservation’.

- After hitting a 2 metre kangaroo in the dark, 100 miles from the nearest town in West Australia’s remote Hamersley Range, fixing the tyre blow out and wreckage, before…..

- the next morning and a couple of hundred miles further south, walking through dry desert bush and coming one pace from treading on a deadly poisonous Tiger snake.

- Stuck in Kuwait’s Al Wufrah Desert with wheels in soft sand in mid August at over 50 degrees Centigrade.

- “Helping the Peruvian police with their enquiries” just off the Lake Titicaca overnight ferry from Bolivia after an attempted murder in the next-door cabin

- Just 18 months after the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia, retracing steps through a minefield at the German/ Czech border crossing having been refused entry by Russian soldiers .

- In a San Francisco apartment with a drug-crazed Hindu nationalist brandishing a knife, threatening “Death to the British Imperialist!”.

- Despite British citizenship, receiving call up papers from the New York State draft board for the US military; ‘Status 1A’ = Boot Camp then straight to Viet Nam.

- Invited by its patron into a La Paz brothel, asking some of the girls what they were doing with their lives, and being assured they, their boyfriends and husbands were all happy they were their families’ main money earners. And would I like to go upstairs with one of them?

These delicate predicaments help me now, in some cases many years later, to remember a particular journey bringing one of its unique features to life again. A lot of self-survival instinct was in play, providing a vivid backdrop to a place and its people. But building lasting impressions takes more time. Deeper feelings about people and places are constructed from experience that reveals itself more gently; the kindness or otherwise of strangers, familiar or unfamiliar reactions to an unexpected situation, and the humour — always the humour — with which people cope with every day life, from the tragic to mundane by way of the downright farcical.

That is what this book is really about; wondrous impressions of the world through lots of long journeys, learning something from each particularly about empathy with strangers, and either finding it which is heart warming, or not finding it, which is disappointing but often more insightful about what makes people tick. We glean as much from negatives as positives; learning from mistakes perhaps. Much of what we are evolves from what we are not.

The enduring appeal of empathy is that there are no rules about when, where or how you will find it. My 8 hours with the Indian Immigration officials was comparatively relaxed and friendly from their point of view, contrasting with the behaviour of many of the stressed-out supplicants in front of them, owing something to there being a cricket match on the wall-mounted TV, and India were winning.

This revealed more about Indian culture than the foreigners in front of them. Officials rarely raise their voices or lose their calm exterior despite many provocations. But the victims like most people anywhere, revealed much more of themselves under stress, and the stories I heard about how people had lost their passports put my Delhi based experience into focus. There had been violent muggings, people left stranded hundreds of miles from the capital, who had to beg borrow or steal their way to Immigration in Delhi, some of them rendered destitute and who just wanted desperately to get out of India and resume a normal existence back home. For them no amount of a calm bureaucrat’s demeanour would ever be sufficient compensation for their misfortune, and they were not going to let off lightly anyone deemed responsible by association for the sad state in which they found themselves. The result was a fascinating exercise in human psychology at work through which I had the rare experience of nothing better to do but study and learn. I ended up feeling enriched by the experience of the loss of my passport. Strange world!

Chapters are arranged geographically, though not to imply similarity between national or cultural neighbours. Understanding and empathy is more elusive than that. Most explore my work as a Planner within major development projects in each country over more than 40 years, providing a mix of social and anthropological observation about people and communities for whom I had been commissioned to implement new towns, industrial complexes and/ or urban infrastructure generally. These were attended by a familiar combination of benefits and negative impacts never made easy for those directly exposed to such physical change.

There are a couple of exceptions. One chapter deals with learning to fly — a mental as well as physical journey covering a lot of ground fast, learning about one’s ability to operate in a strange environment, spurred by others on the same learning journey. Another chapter Island Postcards looks at the geographical individuality of offshore places, chosen from all over the world to compare them with nearby ‘main lands’. There is a special ‘otherness’ about islands and they share insular characteristics regardless of location. Being microcosms of the human state, they were nice to catalogue in a collective way on their own.

The book probes human behaviour governed as much by moods as by the physical or social environments I wrote about at the start of this preface. Gaining something with which to enrich my life experience as a visitor passing through as well as a planner, owed a lot to good fortune, but it has also been testimony that a smile or laughter will likely get you through strange situations or out of trouble more often than not. There is always more gained through sugar than vinegar.

Despite so many mishaps — no, because of them! — and because of my fascination in the work I have done over more than 40 years, the world remains for me a beautiful place and its people worthy of it. Empathy found? I think so but not always as expected!

Aged 11
A bit older than 11….
hughproberts@gmail.com

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